Science Fiction Matthew Hughes Luff Imbry Old Earth

Another Day in Fibbery

By Matthew Hughes
Jul 6, 2020 · 8,576 words · 32 minutes

From the author: Luff Imbry, corpulent master criminal of Old Earth in its penultimate age, deals with an unpaid debt to a loan shark.

This is a Luff Imbry story with an interesting provenance.   I had read an Elmore Leonard story – can’t remember the title – about a cowboy kidnapped by bad guys who leads them into an Apache camp.  Like a lot of Leonard stories, it was brief and perfect, and it stuck with me.  Then one day, looking for an idea to jump-start an Imbry tale, it came back to me.  So I wrote it up.


by Matthew Hughes 

Luff Imbry eased himself down the narrow passageway.  The night’s “operation” had gone according to plan and soon he would be able to deliver the precious scroll he carried tucked under one plump arm.  It would earn him a fee that he hoped would smooth over his sharpening difficulties with the accommodator Titon Gullick, a man with whom it was not wise to have difficulties.

The gray light of dawn lit the doorway at the end of the corridor and Imbry stepped swiftly toward it.  Any onlooker might have expressed surprise that a man of so many chins, and with fingers like overstuffed sausages, could move with such lightness of step, almost silent in the crepuscular dimness of the empty temple.  But the portly thief took pride in having made a lifetime practice of being an originator of surprises, and rarely a recipient.

Thus he was more than chagrined when, as he glided noiselessly past a darkened doorway, he was struck heavily from his right side by a hard-muscled body that hurtled out of the blackness.  Imbry staggered from the impact, stepping sideways across the passage, like a stage performer executing a comic exit into the wings, to crash into a small room that lay opposite the chamber from which his assailant had sprung.

His lower legs struck something hard but flimsy enough to be thrown out of the way.  A chair, he thought, reflexively, even as he stumbled over another obstacle and fell heavily amid a clash of wood shattering against the stone flags of the floor.  A splinter pierced his thigh, but Imbry’s attention was directed to another part of his anatomy:  his well fleshed throat which, for all its padding, was being dangerously compressed by a rock-thewed forearm, while another, equally capable limb pressed down on the back of his neck.

He thrashed and bucked, scattering lightweight furniture that clattered and snapped under the impact of the struggle.   But the strangler’s grip did not loosen, and the thief, though possessed of a muscular strength that many had found startling when it was unleashed, could not shake free.

The blackness of the room was now shot through with streaks of red lightning, as Imbry’s vision centre experienced a dangerous shortage of oxygen.  In a few moments, he would be unconscious, and he had no doubt that that insensibility would shortly thereafter become permanent.

He did not bother to tear at the arm that constricted his throat.  He had no leverage to overcome its strength.  Instead, his right hand groped around him in the darkness, found a shard of splintered wood with a needle-sharp tip.  Imbry grasped the makeshift weapon and, his thudding heart now causing the voice of death to roar in his head, thrust the crude dagger up and over his left shoulder.

The wood struck something hard, slid sideways and continued into something soft.  Imbry felt a warm wetness on his fist and heard a gasp from close beside his ear.  But the attacker’s sudden intake of breath was not followed by its expulsion.  Instead, the arms that bracketed Imbry’s neck slackened and fell away and the thief was able to take in a revivifying draught of air and separate himself from the inert form sprawled across the wreckage of their struggle.

Imbry allowed his breathing to settle as he crouched motionless, ears attuned to the darkness.  He heard no cries of alarm, nor rush of footsteps down the passageway.  The temple stood as empty as he had supposed it to be when he had surreptitiously entered it in the pursuit of his profession.  Still, he maintained his crouch and continued to listen until he was certain that none but he breathed in this place.

Only then did Imbry bring from a pocket of his garment a small device and activate it to shine a dim and narrowly disseminated beam of light upon the scene around him.  As he had surmised, he was in a room in which folding wooden chairs were stored when not needed to seat the temple’s congregation.  Several of them lay overturned and a couple were broken.  Stretched across the debris was the body of a man who had been in his early maturity, but who would now never succeed to middle-age, by consequence of the wooden strut that protruded from the socket of his left eye.

Imbry moved the lumen’s beam away from the face and down onto the corpse’s bare torso.  Again, the thief found occasion for a sharp intake of breath, this time followed by a heartfelt oath.  For the light revealed an unmistakable design tattooed onto the skin of the lifeless chest:  a pair of snakes, their tails intertwined and their heads spitting at each other.

“The Community,” Imbry whispered to himself.  “It would have to be one of the Community.”

Not long after, Imbry made his way, through a complicated route intended to allow him to detect if anyone was following his movements, to his operations center.  This was a nondescript house in an less-than-fashionable district of the great and gaudy city of Olkney, nominal capital of Old Earth in the weary world’s penultimate age.  As the old orange sun’s first light of day glimmered over the city’s towers and rooftops, he entered by a rear door that was far more securely defended than it appeared to be, and went to a secret room where he disposed of the two objects he carried.

One was a scroll of heavy paper, wider than he was and long enough when unrolled to reach from as high as Imbry could stretch his arm down to the floor at his feet.  On its creamy surface, in the gray of charcoal pencil, was a rubbing of a human-like figure, though possessing a definite surplus of limbs.  The original from which he had taken the rubbing was a bas relief on the walls of the temple, said to be a faithful likeness of the goddess Ys-enfro.

The circumstances that had brought the thief into possession of the image were complex.  The cult of Ys-enfro had sprung up millennia before on a world called Orontia, some distance down The Spray.  The goddess was a demanding deity, ordaining a strict regimen of strenuous rituals and prolonged self-denial that appealed to those for whom ordinary social relations did not offer enough of the numinous quality known as tang

The stringency of the faith’s tenets was relieved, however, in the twice-yearly festival of the Moratorium, when the goddess’s devotees indulged themselves in riotous excess.  First came a gluttonous feast of rich foods and intoxicating drink, followed by the recitation of ribald rhymes and stories of an increasingly risqué tone.  As the innuendoes became less and less subtle, the celebrants donned masks and shed garments.  They climbed onto the tables, and each presented his or her revealed form in rude postures and with candid signals of solicitation.  Finally, the entire occasion devolved into episodes of interpersonal connection that often set new lows for licentiousness, even in the louche atmosphere of Olkney.

Yet the cult had not thrived.  There had been a brief flowering, with missionaries from Orontia spreading news of the goddess’s dispensation, and temples founded on the nearby worlds of Griss, Emblehart and Hiberr.  But in time there had arisen a bitter schism over a nice point of doctrine.  Individual congregations had chosen sides, squabbled, fought in the courts—and occasionally in the streets—until the vigor of the founders’ vision was completely dissipated.  In recent years, only the temple in Olkney and the original tabernacle on Orontia had endured.

Then tragedy had befallen the goddess on Orontia:  a campaign of ethical rearmament known as the Untainted had swept through that world’s majority, and Ys-enfro had not withstood the cleansing wind.  Her remaining adherents were rounded up and encouraged, sometimes by measures dire and draconian, to redirect themselves to more wholesome pursuits.  The old temple was pulled down, and the sequestered image of the goddess, graven into the wall of the inner sanctum, had been smashed beyond any hope of reassembly.

Time passed.  The ardor of the Untainted inevitably cooled.  A few of Ys-enfro’s flock had remained faithful to her, even in the re-education facilities—they were used to hard regimens, after all—and now they returned to their former environs, with dreams of reviving the old creed.  But in that ambition they encountered two difficulties:  first, the rituals required an exact likeness of the deity, but that had been demolished during the iconoclasm;  second, throughout The Spray, only one true image survived, and it was on the wall of the temple in Olkney, whose congregation refused the Orontians’ request for a copy.  It seemed that the Ys-enfro’s faithful on Old Earth had long chafed at being subordinate to the Orontian tabernacle’s precedence;  since they had become the sole site of her worship, a weight had lifted from their hearts.  And they did not propose to burden themselves again, by returning to the status of second among unequals.

Thus the High Delimitress of the restored Orontian flock had traveled under an assumed name to Old Earth, where she undertook discreet inquiries.  Word was passed through Olkney’s back channels, sureties were sought and delivered, and finally Luff Imbry had been contracted to bring forth from the Olkney temple the rubbing that now lay upon his work table. 

How he had arranged for the temple to lie unguarded for an hour was a secret he would not divulge.  The operation had called for one of his most subtle yet daring strategies, involving precise timing and the temporary absence of a temple watchman whose dereliction of duty had been induced by Imbry’s discovery of a long-ago iniquity that the man had thought was, literally, buried on another world.

And then, just as all was settled and a munificent fee almost in the thief’s grasp, sheer, malevolent chance had selected Luff Imbry to be stalked and attacked by a murderous thug from the Select Community of Disciplined Aspirants.  Now, as he sat in his operations center, he regarded the second object he had placed on the table.  This was a box as long as the thief’s hand, though only of two fingers’ width, fashioned from the shell of a mollusk that frequented the waters of Mornedy Sound.  He reached for it, undid the fine silver clasp that kept it closed, and opened it to inspect the contents.

He had never seen the interior of an Aspirant’s entourage, for so the box was called within the Community—few outside the Community ever had—and he was disappointed to find it contained nothing of intrinsic value.  Nestled against the shimmering nacreous lining of the shell were a few twists of hair, some dry scrapings of skin and what appeared to be the yellowed nail from some past victim’s smallest toe.  But he knew that these bits of life’s detritus had been precious to the man who had tried to strangle him;  each member of the Community believed that, when he passed to what they called “a truer world,” the persons from whom these bits had been taken would be waiting for him, “with cushions and comforts.”

Or so it was said.  The Community was a deeply secret society, whose members were said to come from the upper levels of Olkney’s social pyramid.  The exact details of their creed were difficult to delineate.  Nothing was written down, and the simplistic approach—that is, approaching an Aspirant to ask pointed questions—had much to disrecommend it.  But it was supposed to be true that an Aspirant never took his entourage out of the communal lodge except when he purposed to add a new relic to his collection.  And that event would only transpire when he had received a vision that compelled him to strip down to breechclout and tattoos, and go forth to strangle. 

Imbry’s Aspirant had likely had a summoning dream that featured the temple.  After ritual preparation, he had gone there to add a new treasure to his entourage.  If Imbry had not suborned the watchman, that fellow would now be on his way to the True World to plump cushions and chill flagons of the wine of paradise in anticipation of his new master’s arrival.

Instead the Aspirant had been translated to his elysium earlier than he had expected.  Imbry could only guess at the theological implications, but down here in Fibbery, to use the Community’s term for the plane of phenomenality, the corpulent thief was faced with both a serious problem and a unique opportunity.

The problem:  the dead Aspirant would be found—Imbry had had no chance to arrange a permanent disposition of the corpse, but had left it up to the suborned watchman.  The Community, though it showed scant regard for the mortalities it dealt out, took a sharp interest in any death that dealt in one of its own.  The other Aspirants would want to know who had killed their brother;  and they would insist on the return of his entourage.

The opportunity:  an Aspirant’s shell was a rarity of rarities;  Imbry could think of at least three collectors of cultic curios who would each pay a stupendous sum for the object on his work table.  For a moment he considered convening an auction, but just as quickly dismissed the idea.  One of the unsuccessful bidders might choose to salve his disappointment by quietly nudging the Community to look in Imbry’s direction.  Better to choose one purchaser and take what he could get.  The price would be high, and the transaction soon behind him.

The decision made, Imbry paused a moment to reflect.  The difficulty presented by the Aspirant was just the latest of a succession of snarls and kinks that had interrupted the smooth weave of his life in recent days.  He wondered if, upon deeper examination, he might find a pattern—even a purpose—behind all the unsought complications that contrived to throw themselves at his ankles as he strove to tread a straight path toward the fulfillment of his desires.  Then it occurred to him that pausing to think such thoughts was yet another delay and distraction.

The past is sand already dribbled from my hands, he told himself, the future has no more substance than a gnat’s opinion.  All I have is now, so let me make the most of it before it, too, dribbles away.

He rose, tucked the box into a hidden inner pocket, and fitted the scroll into a tubular carrying case.  He left the secret room and closed its disguised portal so that it again appeared to be a pile of randomly collected rubbish.  Every visible room of the house was crammed with similar scrap and litter, and its integrator intermittently generated a high-pitched voice appropriate to a demented recluse, hidden deep in the warren of garbage, threatening dreadful retribution on evil-doers who coveted his precarious heaps of moldering scrunge.  In all the years Imbry had operated from the place, no one had ever disturbed his arrangements.

He departed the house by a tunnel that led across the overgrown garden to a tumbledown shed beside a disguised gate in the back fence.  Taking care to keep his movements unnoted was routine practice, but today there was an added incentive to his precautions:  Imbry owed money to the accommodator Titon Gullick, an informal lender who, when repayment fell into arrears, skipped lightly over the normal escalation from polite reminders to stern demands;  Gullick collected his debts by methods that left no room for compromise.  And Imbry’s obligation was now four days overdue.

He came through the fence under the deep shade of a line of blackleaf trees and stood silently to take in the mood of the lane.  Nothing stirred except the usual early-morning chorus of birds threatening each other with death and mayhem should any trespass upon another’s territory.  Imbry left the trees and set off along the narrow way that led to Tustrum Avenue where he could attract a roving hire-car.

But Tustrum was empty when he reached it.  He walked a short distance then stepped into the recessed doorway of a commerciant who sold unreliable items at low cost.  From this partial concealment, he scanned the street.  He had picked a poor time to seek a ride.  Those residents who caroused all night had by now been delivered to their beds, whereas those who rose and sought to wring some use from the day were not yet out and about.

He caught a flicker of brightness from the corner of one eye, turned his head to look up above the low roofs of the commercial establishments that lined Tustrum, hoping to spot an available car.  But the glitter that had drawn his gaze was now nowhere to be seen.  A chill went through Imbry.  Reflexively, he stepped farther back into the doorway, but he knew that any attempt at concealment was now too late.  He moved forward again, looking away from where he had caught the glint of reflected sunlight, but allowing his peripheral vision to search for it.

And there it was again, high and to the left.  Feigning nonchalance, he let his gaze wander that way, and again the gleam faded from view.  Imbry sighed and stepped out of the doorway.  Evasive measures could not serve him now;  one of Gullick’s spotters had found him, and what would come would come.

It came moments later, on a whisper of well-tuned gravity obviators.  A long, low-slung velocitator slid down the sky from the west, the faded sun glowing in miniature in the vehicle’s brightwork, and stopped beside the thief.  Its opaque canopy cleared to transparency and the pair of dull black eyes that inspected Imbry clearly derived neither joy nor interest from the experience.  The eyes were set close together in a moon-shaped face that featured an underdeveloped nose and a small, pursed mouth which now opened to allow an almost-falsetto voice to say, “There you are.”

“Tuts,” said Imbry, for that was the single name by which Titon Gullick’s chief collector was known, “I was just thinking I should get in touch.  My days have been so full of hustle lately.”

“Today may prove to be even fuller,” Tuts piped, then laughed a child-like laugh that Imbry found worrisome.  “Get in.”

A moment later, they were high above Olkney.  Imbry made no attempt to lighten the mood through conversation or inquiries after the man’s well-being.  Nor would there be any scope for negotiation at this stage.  There was equally no point in offering the henchman a benefit to neglect his duties.  Tuts was said to be an offworlder, the product of a heavy-gravity planet that produced human stock who were solid-boned and thick-skinned.  An alternative view was that Gullick had had him grown to order on some ill-favored world near the edge of the Beyond, where the creation of vat-spawned variants was unregulated.  In either case, Tuts was devoted to his employer, and no one who had ever offered an inducement to dilute his loyalty had ever done so more than once.  Indeed, some had not even made it all the way through their first attempt.

Imbry sat on the bench seat across from Tuts and waited to see what would transpire.  If he was in fortune’s favor, his escort’s orders would be to bring in the dilatory debtor for a pointed talk.  If the goddess of chance was miffed this morning, the thief would suffer some carefully weighed unpleasantries, but those would heal in a few days.  If she had turned her back on him altogether, the velocitator would arrow out over Mornedy Sound, whose cold, dark depths were the alleged gathering spot for those who had caused irreparable imbalances to the simple symmetry that Titon Gullick prized in his accounts.

Imbry was relieved to see that their flight took them directly toward the Jormeland district, and soon they were angling down to a landing outside the combined restaurant and tavern where Gullick transacted his business.  Tuts led him through the public room, where the odor of steamed buns and thin-shaven smoked meats brought an involuntary moisture to the fat man’s mouth, and into a small back room where that orifice became bone dry at the sight of the man to whom he owed a significant amount.

Gullick did not pose an intrinsically threatening sight.  If he had, he would have found it difficult to encourage borrowers to enter into arrangements with him.  He was tall and spare, knobby at knees and elbows, with a fall of lank, blond hair.  His eyes were not only two different colors but angled off at separate orientations, so that the darker of them now watched Imbry enter while the lighter contemplated the surface of the small, scarred table at which he sat.  The fine colorless hairs on the backs of his long fingers caught the light as he waved Imbry to sit in the chair opposite him.

Silence reigned.  Imbry thought it pointless to speak first, since the other man would surely set the tone and direction of any conversation.  Gullick changed the orientation of his head so that now his light-colored eye took in Imbry while the other looked over the thief’s shoulder, where Tuts stood in readiness for whatever was required. 

Imbry sought to appear unperturbed, but now he noticed that his upper incisors were indenting his lower lip.  As if that was a signal he had been waiting for, Gullick spoke.  “Do you know what is the fundamental underpinning of my business?”

Imbry would have ventured a reply, but Gullick did not wait.  “Certainty,” he continued.

“Surely, there must be a modicum of risk?” Imbry said.

“Not so much as a tittle.”  Gullick stretched out his fingers and flexed them, putting Imbry in mind of two spiders taking exercise.  “Those who avail themselves of my service, be they close friends or chance acquaintances, must entertain no doubts as to the nature of our relationship.  I lend, they repay, at a precisely calculated rate of interest and to a schedule that admits of no will-I? or nill-I?”

“I see,” said Imbry.  “I hasten to assure you that our arrangement rests on a sound footing.”

“And yet, repayment was due four days since, though the line in my accounts where I should have entered the receipt of funds remains unfilled.”

“Ah, you see, I suffered an unexpected setback.”

Now the dark eye returned to Imbry, while its paler sibling regarded the still flexing hands that occupied the table top between them.  “Why don’t you tell me about it?” said Gullick.

Imbry told the unvarnished truth, since the other man could check—was surely having his integrator do so even as they spoke—and could soon disprove any embellishments.  The consequences of lying to Titon Gullick would likely be worse than that of trying to subvert Tuts, though not so quickly concluded.

Imbry had borrowed to finance an export opportunity.  A wealthy collector on the world Alberankh, one of the Foundational Domains first settled by humans and now a paradise of ease and splendor for its inhabitants, was seeking to acquire wind-tambos.  These were rare objects, found only, and seldom, in the ruins of a long-dead city on the world Iqbal, where a vanished species had once built a civilization before succumbing to unknown calamities.  Wind-tambos were believed to be musical instruments, since they produced tones when their lacquered membranes were stroked or tapped, though none of their ancient users survived to confirm or deny the supposition.  The city where they were discovered had been scoured by relic-hunters, and it was now accepted that all that had survived were in the hands of collectors up and down The Spray.

After much research and experimentation on a scrap of membrane from a wind-tambo that had been found shattered, Imbry had identified the components of the lacquer.  He soon contrived to duplicate it almost exactly.  He then quietly purchased several worthless, broken wind-tambo fragments but had to send to six different worlds for the rare stuffs that would combine to create a convincing lacquer.  That expense strained his finances and necessitated the involvement of the accommodator.

When all was in hand, he went into his workroom and assembled half a dozen respectable forgeries, substituting shaved parchment for the fragile membranes;  multiple layers of the costly lacquer would prevent his chicanery from being discovered.  He then stained and aged the fakes through a process of stress and abrasion. 

Next, Imbry let word filter out, through indirect channels, that a collector on Old Earth—that remote, fusty little globe that claimed to be humankind’s original home-world—had suffered a burglary.  Six choice wind-tambos had been taken, but the collector could not involve the authorities because he had himself acquired the objects under circumstances that argued strongly against bringing in the Bureau of Scrutiny.  These prizes were now available to discreet purchasers.

Imbry had sat back and waited to receive overtures.  They were not long in coming.  He met with agents from several off-world connoisseurs and accepted a very handsome offer, not from the aesthete on Alberankh, but (as the forger had expected), from that man’s neighbor and chief rival in the realm of wind-tambo collecting.  The purchaser paid far more than the objects would have been worth, even had they been real, just to savor the pleasure of denying them to his competitor.

Imbry had crated the prizes and shipped them to Alberankh by an eminently trustworthy means:  a freighter of the Graz line.  Its supercargo would receive payment on delivery then deposit the funds, less a commission, into an account that Imbry could access.  It was a common method of interplanetary brokerage.

“But there,” Imbry told Gullick, “fate or ill fortune, call it what you will, took a hand.  The freighter left here, entered a whimsy that should have brought it within range of Alberankh, and has not been seen again.”

“Ah,” said the accommodator, “mystery.”

It occasionally happened that a ship that entered one of the strange nodes that tied together widely separated regions of space would fail to emerge.  Various theories had been advanced:  instead of being reassembled, its atoms were evenly distributed across the cosmos;  it reemerged, but a billion years too late (or too soon, the difference was moot);  or it came out where and when it was expected, but out of phase with the temporal constant, its crew and passengers become sad ghosts unseen by those around them.

“There is a spacer superstition,” Gullick said, “that argues for the missing ships being captured by the inhabitants of other dimensions, who wear them as jewelry.”

“I think it more likely,” said Imbry, “that the irreality experienced during repeated transition through non-space eventually unhinges the mind, despite the strong medications spacers take.  Someone seizes the controls and sends the ship spinning off into never-was.”

“It’s true,” Gullick says, “one rarely encounters an old spacer.”  But then he interlaced his hirsute fingers and said, “Still, such mysteries must tend to themselves.  We have more mundane concerns.  Am I to assume that the funds with which you meant to repay me were to have come from the freighter’s supercargo?”

“Exactly,” said Imbry.

Gullick’s eyes swam in their orbits as if each was unsure which of them would encompass the sight of Imbry.  Then, in an event that sent a frisson of cold through the corpulent thief, both came to rest on him at the same time.  “That is unfortunate.”

Imbry did not believe that his creditor meant that the ill luck was to be shared.  “I hope I may be considered a minimal risk,” he said.

Gullick reminded him that certainty, not risk—not even minimal risk—was the foundation of his enterprise.  Again, Imbry saw the ocular gavotte, then the dark eye fixed him with a measuring stare.  The accommodator said, “You are noted for your abilities.  Surely, you have accumulated a nest-egg?  Produce the funds and pay me forthwith, and I will add only a 30 per cent premium for dunnage and wear.”

But Imbry had never been one to store up treasures.  He lived for the pleasures of the moment, especially the many long and savored moments between the time he sat down to the dining table and when he finally rose, stuffed as full as an egg with the finest viands and vintages.  His prodigious appetite ate through his funds at a steady rate.  “If I had commanded my own capital,” he said, “I would not have had to borrow from you to purchase rare lacquers for the wind-tambo operation.”

Gullick looked away, neither eye remaining on Imbry.  He made a thoughtful noise deep in his throat.  “You pose a dilemma,” he said, after a while.  “I don’t care for dilemmas.”

Imbry would have spoken but the two spiders broke their embrace and waved him to silence.

“I cannot have a borrower single-handedly adjusting the terms of our arrangement,” the lender said.  “Worse than that, much worse, I cannot allow it to be known that such an event has occurred.  At that moment, certainty packs its bags and departs for regions unknown, unlikely ever to return.”

“But who would know?” said Imbry.  “I would certainly”—he stressed the word—“not make mention of it.”

“I, for one, would know,” said Gullick.  “As would Tuts.”  His roving eyes took in various parts of the room as if they might find others who were privy to the secret.  “Others, who heard that I had passed the word to locate you, might make deductions.”

Imbry opened his mouth to speak, but again the arachnids intervened.

“I must weigh the loss of the funds I advanced you against the greater loss I would incur if every tatterdemalion and touch-me-up thought he could abrogate the terms of a contract with me,” Gullick said.  “I can forestall that loss by taking direct action.  A few energetic movements, a startling revelation, and certainty reigns serenely again.  I haven’t done one for quite a while, not since I dealt with Bulba Thripp—do you remember the occasion?”

“I think everyone remembers it,” Imbry said, suppressing a shudder.  He heard no sound, but he sensed that Tut was now immediately behind his chair.  “I would like to advance a third alternative,” he said.

The pale eye addressed the air above Imbry’s head, where Tut surely hovered.  “Yes?”

“I have not spent the past four days hiding,” the thief said.  “I have been pursuing a new operation to raise the funds to repay you.”

The pale eye swam his way.  “With a premium?”

“Within reason.”  Imbry felt a large, heavy hand descend upon his shoulder.  “Or beyond reason,” he added.

“What is this operation?” Gullick said.

“The details are too tedious to recite.  But I am very close to concluding the affair and reaping the reward.  Which, now that I think of it, in all fairness belongs to you.”

Titon Gullick occupied a pinnacle of sorts in the half-world where Olkney’s least formal economy operated.  He was accustomed to telling others how things were going to be, and rarely had any need to disguise his thoughts.  He had therefore never bothered to perfect the skills of dissemblage, and thus Imbry was able to read the man’s thoughts in the micro-expressions that flashed across the accommodator’s face.  He saw that his case had already been decided—he was to be made an example of—but Gullick would not be averse to first taking whatever the forger could put in his pocket.

Gullick now spoke to Tut.  “What did he have on him?”

The answer came from directly behind Imbry, confirming his earlier reading of the course of events.  “These,” Tut said.

The henchman brushed past Imbry and deposited on the table the tubular case containing the scroll along with several objects that Tuts had taken after he had had the fat man turn out his pockets—though not all of the less noticeable ones—in the aircar.

Gullick eyed the case, with one color then the other, each evincing interest.  But first he sent the spiders to ruffle through the other items:  the low-powered lumen, a set of master keys, a slapper and a few personal oddments.  He picked up the slapper—a device that fitted into the palm and delivered a debilitating shock to any flesh that it impacted at speed—and said, jocularly, “Good thing you didn’t try this on Tut.  They annoy him.”

“Make my skin itch,” Tut said, in his flutey voice.

“And what’s this?” the lender said, picking up the case that contained the scroll.  He shook out the contents and unrolled it on the table, enlisting Tuts to hold one end while the twin spiders pinned down the other.

Imbry said nothing.  He watched Gullick’s face to see if the image triggered any signs of recognition, but the accommodator’s eyes registered nothing.  Nor did Tuts chime in with an answer to his employer’s question.  The thief relaxed.  Gullick’s milieu was limited;  he needed to know little about the deeply fragmented social environment of Olkney and thus he knew next to nothing about moribund cults.

Imbry proceeded to the next step.  “It is,” he said, “a kind of map.”

“What kind of map?” said Gullick.

“A treasure map.”

“It looks like a woman dancing and waving her arms,” said Tuts.

“The image is a code,” said the thief.  “I have spent years deciphering it.  I had already completed the first leg of the journey and was on my way to the second when Tuts found me.”

Titon Gullick had sufficient intellectual resources to keep his focus on the most important aspect of the matter.  “What kind of treasure?” he asked.

“The immensely valuable kind,” Imbry said.  “A hoard built up over millennia by the faithful of a now forgotten cult.  Even their own priests no longer know where the loot is hidden.”

“But you do?”

“If I read the map aright.”

“Can you teach us to read it?”

“The symbols are abstruse, the relationships subtle.  It could take weeks, even months, to bring you up to scratch.”

“Then let us resume your progress,” said Gullick.  “We will come along, to offer whatever assistance we can.” 

“Bring the keys,” Imbry said.

Gullick put them in his pocket, then indicated that Tuts should bring the alleged map and its interpreter.  With the henchman’s huge hand compressing Imbry’s upper arm, the three went out to the street and boarded the velocitator.

“Where to?” Gullick said.

“The statue of Maugremonche,” Imbry said.  It was a monument to some ancient notable whose deeds were scarcely remembered, in a square on the far side of the city.  Gullick spoke to the aircar and it lifted off and took them away.  Imbry looked out through the canopy at the tired orange sun.  It had been just broaching the horizon when he had left the temple of Ys-enfro;  now it was more than halfway to the zenith.  He doubted that was enough time.

The square where Maugremonche’s commemoration stood was filled with a brightly colored booths whose occupants sold items of decor they had fashioned themselves.  Customers were few and business was not brisk as the velocitator set down near the statue.  Accurately sensing that someone who commanded such a vehicle must also possess a well-stocked purse, several of the vendors left their booths to crowd around and offer their wares.  But, at a wave from Gullick, Tuts took action that efficiently extinguished their commercial ardor.  Soon he, Imbry and his creditor had the space around the monument to themselves, save for a couple of comatose artisans stretched out on the pavement.

“Bring the scroll,” Imbry said, advancing to the granite plinth on which Maugremonche stood, his bronze eyes ever on some far vista.  As Tuts held the paper high, Imbry traced a plump finger along the curve of Ys-enfro’s right breast then turned to examine the block of stone.  Beside a plaque that related Maugremonche’s worthy achievements, he found three small scratches in the granite.  “Hmm,” he said, then stood with head bowed, thumb and forefinger grasping one of his chins, rendering a convincing impression of a man engaged in mental computation.

“What does it mean?” Gullick said.

Imbry held up a fleshy palm, as if to defer an answer until his calculations were complete, then lifted his head and said, “The Oval.”  He handed the scroll to Tuts and strode toward the velocitator with a purposeful step.  Gullick and his henchman came after.

The Oval was a reflecting pond set among a trio of public buildings from the neo-mandate school of architecture, all planes and facets of burnished metal, linked together by heavy copper chains that had been left to go green with age.  Imbry approached each of the chains and inspected their lower links.  Then he looked up at the tired old sun, now nearing its maximum ascension, and stood a while in thought.

“What is it?” Gullick asked.

Imbry slowly brought his gaze to bear on the accommodator, as if his awareness of his surroundings had only just returned from some far-distant place.  “It is difficult...” he began, then trailed off as if some new thought had struck.  A moment later, he said to Tuts, “Quick, the scroll!” and gestured for it to be unrolled once more.

Imbry consulted the rubbing of Ys-enfro.  He glanced from the image to the chains and back again, his brow furrowed and his chins spread across his chest.  Then he looked up again at the sun, while Titon Gullick displayed signs of a gathering impatience.

“We must wait,” Imbry declared, after a lengthy ponder, “for the sun to reach its zenith.”  He advanced to a spot on the marbled pavement that surrounded the pool and waited for the shadow of one of the chains to make its slow progress across the pale stone.

While he did so, Imbry was pursuing a private calculation that had nothing to do with maps or treasure.  He was counting the hours since dawn, when the suborned watchman had been scheduled to arrive back at Ys-enfro’s temple, to resume his duties as if he had never left.  The man would have found the shattered chairs and the dead Aspirant, as well as the small but well filled pouch of currency Imbry had left in a prominent position.  The thief was confident the caretaker would know what to do:  clean up the mess and remove the body from the premises, before any members of the congregation came for an early contemplation of the goddess’s sublimity.

There would be no time for comprehensive measures;  the body would likely have gone into the bushes in a small park across from the temple’s rear door.  It would not have lain there too long before some early-morning pedestrian noted the unusual sight and summoned proctors.  They, in turn, would have determined foul play and called in the Bureau of Scrutiny.  The scroots would open an investigatory file and, after identifying the corpse as a member of the Community, make contact with the dead man’s brethren.  At that point, an argument would have ensued, with the Bureau wishing to hold onto the body while the Aspirants would demand its immediate release, so that the Rite of Accession could begin.  If they learned that the dead man’s entourage was missing, their insistence would be colored by the starkest emotions.

Imbry looked up at the sky again.  It was almost noon.  They’ll need more time, he said, silently in the privacy of his mind.  To Gullick, he said, “Almost there,” and stooped to peer at the shadow of the chain on the milky marble.  Then he knelt and made measurements using the distance between the first and second knuckles on his index finger, glancing from time to time toward the scroll Tuts held for him.

Eventually he rose and faced Gullick.  “The Trivoline Steps,” he said.

The accommodator looked down at the shadow of the chain, at the scroll that his henchman was now rerolling to put back in the case, then back to Imbry.  “You are not just seeking to postpone the inevitable, are you?” he said,  “leading us on a ‘boat trip around the bay,’ as the saying goes, hoping that some marvelous fortuity will happen to alter your situation?”

Imbry returned him the guileless gaze that he had spent years perfecting.  “Not at all.  I am perfectly confident that a great treasure waits at the end of this trail.”

“Good,” said Gullick, “because, were that the case, the example I would have to make of you would be even more startling.”

They flew off to the Trivoline Steps, a whimsical arrangement of staircases fashioned from several different materials that led up and around, down and over, inside and outside, some ending in the air, others winding back upon themselves, while some had the capacity to open trapdoors on hidden hinges or to convert themselves into slick slides at random intervals.  The whole construction was said to be a concrete representation of the ancient philosophy known as Intentional Futilism, whose tenets and arguments were no longer valued.  Children now used the exemplar as a playground.

Several youths were enjoying a game of tag on the steps when the trio arrived.  Tuts encouraged them to play elsewhere and, after a frank exchange of opinions accompanied by a few hurled stones that bounced harmlessly off the offworlder’s thick skin, the young people departed.  Imbry began a painstaking survey of the staircases, consulting the scroll from time to time, while the sun made its steady decline from the heights toward the farthest rooftops of Olkney.

Gullick became increasingly dissatisfied with the pace of events.  He sat in the velocitator, the canopy raised, causing his arachnids to embrace and disengage repetitively, when they were not engaged in other calisthenics that had them tap-dancing on the control yoke or his up-bent knees.  Finally, with the sun a bloated red circle sinking behind the palaces on the Hill of Doreigne, casting shadows dense as black velvet, the lender called Tuts to him.  Imbry observed that their conversation was brief and conducted in suppressed tones.  Then the henchman turned toward where the thief sat on the lower steps of a spiraling staircase of tarnished irredentine, cracked the joints of his outsized fingers and plodded forward.

Imbry leapt up and declared, “I have it!  The mathematics eluded me, but once I applied third-level consistencies, all became clear!”

Tuts paused and looked back over his shoulder.  Gullick fluttered a dismissive spider.  “Where to now?” the accommodator said.  “And how many more legs will this journey take?”

“This is the last,” Imbry assured him, climbing into the aircar.  “Do you know Halvath Boulevard?”

Gullick did not, as Imbry had expected.  Halvath was a wide street in the Shamblings district, whose well funded residents would rarely require the kind of informal financial arrangements in which his creditor dealt.  But the aircar knew all of Olkney and inerrantly sped them to the coordinates Imbry specified.

Again, Imbry had Tuts hold the scroll while he consulted it.  He tilted his head to one side, causing one of his jowls to hang lower than the other, and studied the rubbing intently.  After a moment, he straightened and said, “We are here.”

“Where?” Gullick said, looking around.  They were standing beside a high, blank wall, the rear of a large building that backed onto Halvath Boulevard.  The lower reaches of the wall were screened by a line of full-grown coppertwine trees, rooted in a strip of soil between the stone and the pedestrian pavement.  Imbry pushed aside the swirled lower branches of one of the trees and revealed a small door, unmarked and plain, sealed by a simple but sturdy lock.

“Give me my keys,” Imbry said.

Gullick took them from his pocket, but hesitated before handing them over.  Imbry read his face, saw a mixture of rising greed and simmering distrust.  The thief said, “You may go first, if you wish.”

Imbry watched as the accommodator weighed the alternatives.  If traps and treachery lurked behind the door, Gullick would want Imbry to be first in;  but the fat man might duck in, slam the door shut in slow-moving Tuts’s face and make an escape.  He saw his creditor come to a decision.

“You will go first,” Gullick said.  “I will be on your heels, and Tuts will come after.”

“Very good.  May I have the keys?”

“Here they are.  But you will give them back to me before you enter.”

“As you like.”  Imbry took the collection of master keys, examined them briefly, then chose one.  He applied it to the lock and all present heard the door’s internal mechanism engage.  Imbry touched the control and the door swung inward.  Beyond lay darkness from which came a faint scent of burnt incense.

“The keys,” Gullick said.

Imbry returned them.  “And so we go,” he said, and stepped through the doorway.

The accommodator came close behind, and one of his spiders took a firm grip on the fat man’s shoulder.  Imbry moved slowly into the unlit space, Gullick’s breath on his nape, Tuts stolidly bringing up the rear.

“What is this place?” Gullick whispered.

“The temple of Ys-enfro,” Imbry said.  It was not the first lie he had told today, and now he added another:  “There will be a secret panel, and behind it will lie the treasure.”

The hand on the thief’s shoulder squeezed reflexively.  “Find it!” said Gullick.

“Oops!” said Imbry, stumbling on some unseen unevenness of the floor.  He fell back against his creditor, half turning, and his hand clutched at Gullick’s garment for support before he steadied himself.  “Sorry,” he said.

The lender had instinctively loosened his grip, the better to thrust Imbry off him, lest both fall.  The moment he did so, the fat man sped away toward the dim outline of an oblong he had spied several paces away, as his eyes had adjusted to the darkness.  He heard Gullick’s intake of breath then the sound of his footsteps in pursuit.

The outline framed an inner door, fortunately not locked, and Imbry flung it open and went through.  Ahead, a flight of stairs, lit dimly from above, led upwards to a landing, where they turned to ascend in a second course.  Imbry took them two at a time and was on the first landing when Gullick came through the door.  They locked eyes for an instant, then Imbry bounded up the next flight.

At the top was another doorway, limned in a brighter light that shone in whatever space lay behind.  The smell of incense was stronger here, and over his own heavy breathing, Imbry could hear a soft and solemn tapping of drums accompanied by a throat-chant.  His hand slapped the door’s control and, with Gullick closing on him and Tuts tramping inevitably behind, the fat man plunged through the opening and raced pell-mell across the space beyond.

His impressions of the next few seconds were of fragments of sight and sound:  a great hall, lit by a score of golden lamps;  a hundred eyes turning his way;  a body on a bier, wreathed in wisps of fragrant smoke;  fifty hard-muscled men sitting cross-legged, five hundred fingers tapping softly on fifty drumheads made from human skin;  fifty bare chests, each adorned with a tattoo—a pair of twining snakes.

A shout went up as Imbry was halfway across the hall.  By the time the first Aspirant broke free of the funeral trance and rose to stop him, the thief was almost to the door that led from the hall into the vestibule and the street beyond.  Wishing he still had the slapper, Imbry put out a palm at the end of a straight arm and sent the man toppling backwards into another of his fellows who had risen to one knee.  Both fell, and now the shouting became general as Gullick and Tuts barreled out of the stairwell in the fat man’s wake.

Imbry did not stop to see what went on behind him.  He broke out of the Community of Disciplined Aspirants’ front door, descended the front steps three at a time, and ran at his best speed down the street and around the corner.  Moments later, breathing heavily, he was in the accommodator’s aircar and swinging up into the sky, leaving the canopy unsecured.  Passing over the Community’s lodge, he looked down and saw no one emerging from the exit he had left by.  Over the whisper of the velocitator’s obviators, he could hear muffled shouts and the sounds of struggle.

He was not clear on the fine points of the Community’s rites, but he believed it was permissible to send new attendants to the True World at any time before the final act of the funeral service transported the Aspirant’s essence to paradise.  The accommodator and his henchman would be welcome additions to the dead man’s complement—especially when his brethren discovered the missing entourage in Titon Gullick’s pocket, where Imbry had tucked it while pretending to stumble against his captor in the dark basement of the Community’s lodge.

The thief told the velocitator to return to the lender’s place of business in the Jormeland district.  Imbry left the car hovering above the street while he strode through the restaurant and into the back room as if he had every right to do so.  The accommodator’s operating funds were sealed in a code-coffer set in the floor, but Imbry was confident that breaking Gullick’s cipher would not be an onerous chore.

Indeed, before long, he was aloft again, angling over the city to find a person of his acquaintance who dealt in used vehicles.  A tightly stuffed valise sat beside him on the aircar’s seat.

It had been a long and eventful day.  He had won two treasures and lost both.  He doubted if the watchman at the temple of Ys-enfro would agree to vacate his duties a second time—not if the job required removing bodies.  On the other hand, Imbry possessed both an excellent memory and a practiced hand;  he might be able to duplicate the lost scroll, or at least produce a version that would satisfy the Orontian High Delimitress.

The Aspirant’s entourage was probably just as well foregone.  If a whisper of Imbry’s involvement ever came to the Select Community...  He put the thought aside. 

He recalled that he had wondered earlier if there was a pattern to the difficulties that life had recently offered him.  He turned his mind to the question again, but at that moment his stomach voiced its disapproval of having passed an entire day without gainful occupation.  Imbry decided he would sell the aircar tomorrow.  He had its integrator connect him with Xanthoulian’s, where his appetite and purse were equally appreciated, and made a reservation for dinner. 

Patterns, he said to himself, are all very well.  But all I have is now, and dinner at Xanthoulian’s is a meal.




This story originally appeared in Postscripts.

Matthew Hughes

I'm writing fantasy and science fiction, often in a Jack Vance mode.